Conference “100 Years ILO”

A Future of Work with Social Justice: The ILO in its second Century

Statement | University of Leiden, the Netherlands | 07 February 2019
Dear Minister Koolmees,
Representatives of the Employers’ and Workers’ organizations,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Thank you for your kind invitation to this Conference. It is a great pleasure to be with you today in the beautiful city of Leiden, a place so full of history and humanist tradition.

It is fitting that our meeting takes place here, at the oldest Dutch university, the Alma Mater of Grotius and many others, including our colleague and ILO friend Professor Paul van der Heijden.

I understand that tomorrow this venerable university will turn 444 years old, for which I extend my congratulations!

With “only” 100 years, the ILO is entering a new phase of its life yet, such longevity is quite unique in the international system. After all, the ILO remains one of the very few elements of the 1919 treaty of Versailles not to have been disavowed by history. Throughout a Century marked by unprecedented levels of violence and destruction, the ILO has been a locomotive for social progress. Of course, this would not have been possible without the extraordinary commitment of men and women representing governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations who have devoted their lives and efforts to social justice, dialogue and international cooperation.

In this regard, the Netherlands has played a special role from the beginning as a founding member and constant supporter of the ILO mandate, especially our normative agenda and supervisory system – not to mention the leading role the Netherlands plays in international development cooperation. And above all, as practioner of ILO’s methods and values.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, the worst thing that could happen to the ILO today would be to rest on its laurels and achievements. As former Director-General David Morse noted in accepting the ILO’s Nobel Prize in 1969, “the ILO has never seen, and will never see, its role as that of a defender of the status quo; it will continue to seek to promote social evolution by peaceful means, to identify emerging social needs and problems and threats to social peace (…)”.

This is a message that the ILO has tried to act upon as it reaches its Centenary, by asking some fundamental questions about the future of work and about its own place in it.

Indeed there have been some almost existential issues swirling around the ILO in recent years which, while they have seldom been addressed explicitly in our debates have, nevertheless, provided the context for many of these discussions.

Since our Dutch friends are renowned for the directness of their approach, let me “go Dutch” for a minute and put some of these existential issues on the table straight away. There are three.

The first issue then, is whether the ILO, the historic consequence of a first industrial revolution, and in many ways marked by that industrial order still makes sense as we confront the, for many post-industrial, realities of a fourth such revolution. Are we trying to impose a 20th Century template on 21st Century realities and finding that they really don’t fit?

Secondly, and in this context, and the diverse circumstances of its now 187 member States, is it credible and effective to address key social and labour issues through tripartism – the interaction of governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations who often face their own challenges of representation.

And thirdly, what about that original “wild dream”, as Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, of the ILO setting international labour standards and supervising their application by this worldwide membership? This normative function has come under considerable pressure over the last decade, at a time when the rule of international law more generally is similarly challenged. I personally have been nervous to talk of a “crisis” of the ILO’s standards activities, but I see that Professor van der Heijden’s intervention is about a crisis overcome (albeit with a question mark after it) so maybe I should relax a bit on this. But the question really is: can we carry on with this wild dream?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You will not be surprised to hear that the Director-General of the ILO will state his confidence in the capacity of our Organization to carry forward its mandate for social justice in today’s rapidly changing world of work, a mandate as urgent and as necessary today as it has ever been. This is my conviction. But that confidence needs to be backed up by a serious, hard-headed look at what is happening in that world of work, a clear understanding of what we want our future of work to be, and then, crucially, the identification of what we –governments, workers, employers and all our allies- intend to do to make it all happen.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is what the Global Commission on the Future of Work, whose report was published on 22 January, has strived to help us to do.

It is not my intention to persuade you of the merits of this report and its recommendations. It was an independent body, co-chaired by the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven and the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa. What I want to do is to outline what is in the report, and where it might take us.

Above all, this is a report about and focused on people. It calls for a human-centred agenda that puts people and the work they do at the centre of economic and social policy and business practices. This agenda has three priorities for action:

• First, increasing investment in people’s capabilities – so that they can fully take advantage of the real opportunities that the future of work offers.
o It proposes a universal entitlement to lifelong learning; supporting people through the multiple transitions that they will go through over the course of their working lives.
o It calls for universal social protection from birth to old age, including a basic social protection floor to everybody in need.
o And it proposes too a transformative agenda for gender equality.

• The second priority is to increase investment in the institutions of work. The report reminds us, as the ILO constitution does, that “labour is not a commodity” and it is the institutions that regulate labour markets that prevent it from being treated as such.
o The Commission proposes the establishment of a Universal Labour Guarantee that ensures that all workers, enjoy certain basic guarantees – their fundamental workers’ rights; an ‘adequate living wage’ (that’s in the ILO Constitution of 1919), maximum limits on hours of work, and protection of safety and health at work as a new fundamental right. These are really not new objectives but 100 years from the creation of the ILO they remain a long way from the reality of the working lives of very many millions of our fellow human beings.
o The report recommends we take advantage of technological developments to afford greater ‘time sovereignty’ to workers so that they can, through the exercise of choice, exercise a better balance on their work and their private lives. This also means that those working on platforms or in part-time jobs need to make flexible hours a real choice, not one driven by necessity or imposition.
o The Commission calls on us all to revitalize policies that promote collective bargaining and social dialogue as a public good, something which is good for our societies in general.
o The report also calls for innovations that use technology in support of decent work and encourages the ILO to establish an innovation lab to make this happen.

• The third priority is to increase investment in decent and sustainable work:
o by investing in transformative areas of the economy, such as the rural economy, the care economy, the green economy and high-quality physical and digital infrastructure. These have the highest potential payoff in terms of decent and sustainable jobs for the future.
o We must also reshape incentives to encourage long-term investments in the real economy. This human-centred agenda cannot be accomplished if the overriding incentives for business are directed towards purely short-term financial targets and solely to immediate shareholder expectations.

Finally, and importantly for the ILO, the Global Commission looks at some of the steps needed to implement its recommendations, especially from an institutional point of view. It recommends that countries establish national strategies on the future of work through social dialogue and calls on the ILO to be the focal point in the international system for the implementation of this human-centred agenda.

In a phrase, the challenge is to reinvigorate that social contract that took form in 1919 when Governments, Employers and Workers came together to commit themselves to work together for social justice. In the Netherlands I believe that this contract has been upheld to extraordinary positive effect.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you can see, this is an ambitious report.

The Netherlands is the first country this year to hold a tripartite debate since the Global Commission on the Future of Work presented its report. Similar exercises will follow as we build up to the ILO Centenary Conference in Geneva in June.

The Conference aims to adopt an authoritative document – most probably a Declaration, which we all trust will measure up to the importance of the issues we are considering and bear comparison too with past ILO Declarations – notably of course our “magna carta”, the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944.

All Constituents’ voices are needed to navigate our work as we face up to the challenges of the world of work in the 21st Century. That is why your discussions here in the Netherlands and in all other member States are so important. This week an intense process of consultations is already taking place in Geneva within and among the three tripartite groups to come up with the main building blocks of a future Declaration.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In many ways, the times in which we live are no less challenging than those at our founding in 1919, or in 1944 when the supreme test for the ILO was “simply” to survive. Today, we dare to build a viable project for the Future of Work. That means at least two things: firstly adapting our work to the new challenges that have emerged; secondly, and equally important, addressing our “unfinished business”, those commitments that, for many reasons, were taken a century ago but have not yet been fully realized. I think in particular of a key provision of the Philadelphia Declaration that commits the ILO “to examine and consider all international economic and financial policies and measures” in the light of the fundamental objective of social justice.

And indeed our Global Commission invites us to do just this, with specific reference to strengthening the interaction of the ILO with the Bretton Woods Institutions and the World Trade Organization in support of a new human-centred agenda. These can be very sensitive issues – they have generated much heat in the past, and perhaps we need to bring some pragmatism to them now. Perhaps the idea should be, to coin a phrase I learnt in this country “samen doen wat samen kan”.

So, I look forward to today’s discussions to help us forwards. It will be the ILO’s member States, and our tripartite constituents who will decide what the future path will look like.

But let me conclude by saying that in the final analysis, it takes outstanding individuals, people with commitment to the objectives of the ILO and the talents to bring them into reach that make a decisive difference. Professor van der Heijden has been one of those people, with an extraordinary record of 15 years as Chair of the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association. That has meant a lot of lives saved, a lot of lives changed, and it has meant justice served. So Paul, for all of that and so much more thank you very much.

And thank you all for your attention.